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Bot Building for Kids and Their Parents: Celebrating Student Robotics

Interest in student robotics continues to grow. Find out how to get your (and your kids') feet wet with hands-on robotics engineering projects and activities. From taking robotic steps with LEGO® to upcycling toothbrushes or recouping the innards of cast-off electronics, robotics projects can turn kids on to creative thinking and STEM tinkering! Start at the beginning with simple bots that require only a few parts, and then move on to increasingly more innovative and sophisticated designs, building know-how with each new bot. Watch your student's understanding of robotics engineering grow bot by bot!

A student assembling a bristle bot

"You did what with your brother's toothbrush?"

Nestled in between April showers and May flowers is something much less natural and more gritty, much more tech-savvy, sci-fi-inspired, and DIY oriented—National Robotics Week, April 6-14.

A growing wave of young tinkerers and builders are exploring robotics, often thanks to the availability of after-school robotics clubs and programs and summer science camps. Meeting the needs of both students interested in transforming their bot-building into school science projects and students and parents looking for guided home robotics challenges and explorations, the Robotics Area continues to expand, and there are more new K-12 robotics Project Ideas in development and coming soon!

Inspiring Young Engineers

Ben Finio, a scientist at Science Buddies, recently helped lead a group of kids in building awesome light-following Bristlebots at a Makerspace gathering in Ithaca, NY. Bristlebots, originally popularized by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, are DIY versions of vibrating robotic bugs. With a few simple components, possibly even upcycling a cast-off handheld device from the household junk drawer, kids and families can make their own vibrating bugs with toothbrush bristle bodies and legs. The upgraded model Finio invented and helped students build (shown in the video above) uses two motors and two light sensors to create a bot that will trail around after a light source. Talk about a cool tech spin on classic tag-along toys!

Science Buddies Bristelbot Exploration

Racing Bristlebots at Science Buddies /  hands-on robotics project

The brand new Racing Bristlebots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go! robotics Project Idea helps students turn Bristlebot building into a comparative science project. In this project, students are guided in building a base-model Bristlebot and then investigate the impact of using different materials. How will different toothbrush bristle designs affect the speed of the bot? Students will build and compare two bots in the project, but the project can easily be extended as students make their way through the toothbrush aisle at the grocery store in a quest for the best head of bristles for bot building (as opposed to teeth cleaning!).

Finio will be bringing a version of his light-tracking Bristlebot to Science Buddies in the future, but parents and students can get started now with their first Bristlebots. What other enhancements can you make to a bristlebot to change the core design?

Where to Start with Robotics

As is often the case with engineering and tinkering-style projects, Finio assembled his Light-following Bristlebot from assorted parts. Knowing how and what to take from disparate places to enable a successful hands-on robotics exploration can be a stumbling block for many parents and teachers who want to give their kids and students robotics opportunities but are unsure where to begin and what to buy.

Finio encourages parents, especially those with younger kids, to look for robotics projects that involve only a few components and don't require complicated circuits, mechanisms, or programming. Bots like the Bristlebot or an Art Bot (which uses pens for legs), can be easy but engaging entry-level projects, ones that parents can assist with or that older kids can undertake as a launching point for getting started with robotics.

Investing in a robotics platform like LEGO® Mindstorms® or VEX is another pathway parents might consider. With a platform, kids can use build dozens of robots using designs available online or in the many, many books full of step-by-step bot ideas. The kits themselves may require substantial initial investment, but these kits have high reuse value, can be extended with add-on components, and offer programmability as well.

Empowering Student Robotics Engineers

At Science Buddies, students interested in robotics, of any flavor, or students who already have experience with or access to a system like LEGO® Mindstorms®, can find robotics engineering challenges that can be used for home fun or as the basis for a more involved science or engineering project for school.

The following Robotics Project Ideas offer a sample of the kinds of explorations students can find in the Robotics Area at Science Buddies:

Why Robotics

With its combination of innovation, creative thinking, engineering, and electronics, robotics can be a wonderful way to help encourage your student's engineering design skills, as well as important troubleshooting and problem solving strategies. If something doesn't work, figuring out why and then evaluating what you can do about it are core concepts when working with bots of all sizes. Equally important is the reality that there are no right answers in terms of "how" to build or design a robot.

Finio says he likes robotics for students and for STEM education because it is interdisciplinary. "Robotics is a combination of math, physics, mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, programming, and sometimes even chemistry and biology," says Finio. "So whether you like using your hands to build things or prefer working on a computer, you can probably find something within robotics that you think is fun. Designing robots really encourages tinkering, prototyping, and trial-and-error. Even professional engineers rarely design robots that work perfectly on the first try!"

Two photos side-by-side of students playing with a light-following bristle bot
Pictured above: participants making light-following Bristlebots at a hands-on robotics event with Ben Finio, Science Buddies.

For more information about National Robotics Week, visit www.nationalroboticsweek.org.

Books on Bots

You can find many blueprints for robotics projects online, and if you work with a system like LEGO® Mindstorms®, there are numerous project books for design inspiration. Here are a few other robotics titles you might explore at your local library or on a bookstore shelf as you search for inspiration and projects that fit you and your student's level of interest and expertise.

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